” ‘Mr. Hall Pycroft, I believe?’ said he.
” ‘Yes, sir,’ I answered, pushing a chair towards him.
” ‘Lately engaged at Coxon & Woodhouse’s?’
” ‘Yes, sir.’
” ‘And now on the staff of Mawson’s.’
” ‘Quite so.’
” ‘Well.’ said he, ‘the fact is that I have heard some really extraordinary stories about your financial ability. You remember Parker, who used to be Coxon’s manager. He can never say enough about it.’
“Of course I was pleased to hear this. I had always been pretty sharp in the office, but I had never dreamed that I was talked about in the City in this fashion.
” ‘You have a good memory?’ said he.
” ‘Pretty fair,’ I answered modestly.
” ‘Have you kept in touch with the market while you havebeen out of work?’ he asked.
” ‘Yes. I read the stock-exchange list every morning.’
” ‘Now that shows real application!’ he cried. ‘That is the way to prosper! You won’t mind my testing you, will you? Let me see. How are Ayrshires?’
” ‘A hundred and six and a quarter to a hundred and five and seven-eighths.’
” ‘And New Zealand consolidated?’
” ‘A hundred and four.’
” ‘And British Broken Hills?’
” ‘Seven to seven-and-six.’
” ‘Wonderful!’ he cried with his hands up. ‘This quite fits in with all that I had heard. My boy, my boy, you are very much too good to be a clerk at Mawson’s!’
“This outburst rather astonished me, as you can think. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘other people don’t think quite so much of me as you seem to do, Mr. Pinner. I had a hard enough fight to get this berth, and I am very glad to have it.’
” ‘Pooh, man; you should soar above it. You are not in your true sphere. Now, I’ll tell you how it stands with me. What I have to offer is little enough when measured by your ability, but when compared with Mawson’s it’s light to dark. Let me see. When do you go to Mawson’s?’
” ‘On Monday.’
” ‘Ha, ha! I think I would risk a little sporting flutter that you don’t go there at all.’
” ‘Not go to Mawson’s’?’
” ‘No, sir. By that day you will be the business manager of the Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited, with a hundred and thirty-four branches in the towns and villages of France, not counting one in Brussels and one in San Remo.’
“This took my breath away. ‘I never heard of it.’ said I.
” ‘Very likely not. It has been kept very quiet, for the capital was all privately subscribed, and it’s too good a thing to let the public into. My brother, Harry Pinner, is promoter, and joins the board after allotment as managing director. He knew I was in the swim down here and asked me to pick up a good man cheap. A young, pushing man with plenty of snap about him. Parker spoke of you, and that brought me here to-night. We can only offer you a beggarly five hundred to start with.’
” ‘Five hundred a year!’ I shouted.
” ‘Only that at the beginning; but you are to have an overriding commission of one per cent on all business done by your agents, and you may take my word for it that this will come to more than your salary.’
” ‘But I know nothing about hardware.’
” ‘Tut, my boy, you know about figures.’
“My head buzzed, and I could hardly sit still in my chair. But suddenly a little chill of doubt came upon me.
” ‘I must be frank with yoli,’ said I. ‘Mawson only gives me two hundred, but Mawson is safe. Now, really, I know so little about your company that –‘
” ‘Ah, smart, smart!’ he cried in a kind of ecstasy of delight. ‘You are the very man for us. You are not to be talked over, and quite right, too. Now, here’s a note for a hundred pounds, and if you think that we can do business you may just slip it into your pocket as an advance upon your salary.’
” ‘That is very handsome,’ said I. ‘When should I take over my new duties?’
” ‘Be in Birmingham to-morrow at one,’ said he. ‘I have a note in my pocket here which you will take to my brother. You will find him at 126B Corporation Street. where the temporary offices of the company are situated. Of course he must confirm your engagement, but between ourselves it will be all right.’
” ‘Really, I hardly know how to express my gratitude, Mr. Pinner,’ said I.
” ‘Not at all, my boy. You have only got your deserts. There are one or two small things — mere formalities — which I must arrange with you. You have a bit of paper beside you there. Kindly write upon it “I am perfectly willing to act as business manager to the Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited, at a minimum salary of 500 pounds.” ‘
“I did as he asked. and he put the paper in his pocket.
” ‘There is one other detail,’ said he. ‘What do you intend to do about Mawson’s?’
“I had forgotten all about Mawson’s in my joy. ‘I’ll write and resign,’ said I.
” ‘Precisely what I don’t want you to do. I had a row over you with Mawson’s manager. I had gone up to ask him about you, and he was very offensive; accused me of coaxing you away from the service of the firm, and that sort of thing. At last I fairly lost my temper. “If you want good men you should pay them a good price,” said I.
” ‘ “He would rather have our small price than your big one,” said he.
” ‘ “I’ll lay you a fiver,” said I, “that when he has my offer you’ll never so much as hear from him again.”
” ‘ “Done!” said he. “We picked him out of the gutter, and he won’t leave us so easily.” Those were his very words.’
” ‘The impudent scoundrel!’ I cried. ‘I’ve never so much as seen him in my life. Why should I consider him in any way? I shall certainly not write if you would rather I didn’t.’
” ‘Good! That’s a promise,’ said he, rising from his chair. ‘Well, I’m delighted to have got so good a man for my brother. Here’s your advance of a hundred pounds, and here is the letter. Make a note of the address. 126B Corporation Street, and remember that one o’clock to-morrow is your appointment. Goodnight, and may you have all the fortune that you deserve!’
“That’s just about all that passed between us, as near as I can remember. You can imagine, Dr. Watson, how pleased I was at such an extraordinary bit of good fortune. I sat up half the night hugging myself over it, and next day I was off to Birmingham in a train that would take me in plenty time for my appointment. I took my things to a hotel in New Street, and then I made my way to the address which had been given me.
“It was a quarter of an hour before my time, but I thought that would makc no difference. 126B was a passage between two large shops, which led to a winding stone stair, from which there were many flats, let as offices to companies or professional men. The names of the occupants were painted at the bottom on the wall, but there was no such name as the Franco-Midland Hardware Company, Limited. I stood for a few minutes with my heart in my boots, wondering whether the whole thing was an elaborate hoax or not, when up came a man and addressed me. He was very like the chap I had seen the night before, the same figure and voice, but he was clean-shaven and his hair was lighter.
” ‘Are you Mr. Hall Pycroft?’ he asked.
” ‘Yes,’ said I.
” ‘Oh! I was expecting you, but you are a trifle before your time. I had a note from my brother this morning in which he sang your praises very loudly.’
” ‘I was just looking for the offices when you came.’
” ‘We have not got our name up yet, for we only secured these temporary premises last week. Come up with me, and we will talk the matter over.’
“I followed him to the top of a very lofty stair, and there, right under the slates, were a couple of empty, dusty little rooms, uncarpeted and uncurtained, into which he led me. I had thought of a great office with shining tables and rows of clerks, such as I was used to, and I daresay I stared rather straight at the two deal chairs and one little table, which with a ledger and a waste-paper basket, made up the whole furniture.
” ‘Don’t be disheartened, Mr. Pycroft,’ said my new acquaintance, seeing the length of my face. ‘Rome was not built in a day, and we have lots of money at our backs, though we don’t cut much dash yet in offices. Pray sit down, and let me have your letter.’
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